The central story in this book reached out and grabbed me years ago. Although the storyteller lived in the thirteenth-century, the fate of his tale’s main character stunned me. The similarity to my own life, and to life in modern times was too obvious to ignore. I realized that commitment and ambition had led many of us to a certain kind of worldly success but, what I hadn’t grasped, was how all this could lead to a crisis. The alarming truth was that our means of shaping the future—our imagination—was being rapidly and systematically eroded. Worse yet, this apparent imaginative decline was, it seemed to me, spreading throughout society, in organizations of all kinds—business, universities, the professions and not-for-profits. It was everywhere.
Another important influence in my life at the time—a poet and community leader who also lived 700 years ago—wrote about this same sense of urgency. He saw the emerging issue with striking clarity. But, what was more important, he knew a way out of the crunch. He spoke of renewing commitments based on the rediscovery of one’s freedom, and it was as though he spoke directly to me.
An awareness of an imaginative decline and the resulting problems came together in my own midlife search and led to the evolving The Secret Sabbatical Course on which this book is based. Over the decade it’s been offered, I’ve found there’s a required level of depth for meaningful change to happen. On the Course, participants attend either tightly organized sessions on a monthly one-on-one basis or in small groups over several months. Most are fully employed. In between sessions they read short novels and watch selected videos, including movies. Attendees come from diverse backgrounds in management, the professions, and the sciences.
There have been many changes and improvements to the material—some suggested by the participants—and this book is based on the current version.
The Course presents a reintegration of three aspects of modern life that should never have been separated. These include the vast and often repetitive field of material on managing organizations, vital but neglected insights from the humanities, and the intermediate realm of applied science, which is growing in importance in the modern world. I reached out to the powerful potential of interdisciplinary fields such as behavioral economics, decision theory and brain science. Because Course participants are from such varying backgrounds, the dialog is frequently intense and almost always productive. The point is, to stir the imagination, and the heart, in order to see better and ultimately do better.
I’ve included an equally diverse set of guides and examples of role models from novels, movies, practical philosophy, science, TV shows and poetry. I could see the material helping midlife participants plot the next stages of their lives and careers, or influencing the “giving back” plans of some boomers. But more than this, that it could help anyone interested in changing their lives.